MERCEDES BENZ SL600
A FUTURE CLASSIC
LACHLAN CONTINUES TO DELVE INTO MODERN CLASSICS, AND TAKES A LOOK AT ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR MERCEDES NAME PLATES EVER BUILT, THE SL
On our way to shoot this modern classic, we drove past Auckland’s Eden Park. Thirty years ago this year, that’s where Auckland played host to the final of the inaugural Rugby World Cup, and a young All Black captain named David Kirk held the cup aloft. This year also marks 30 years since the stock market crash of 1987, and given a heady mixture of patriotic rugby pride, new, easy money, possibly some French champagne, and other South American enhancements, there’s no doubt the Eden Park car park (especially the box parking) featured a good number of Mercedes SLS. Undoubtedly a good number of them were the top-of-the-pops SL560 in R109 format.
The R109 had a stellar run from 1972 to 1989. Of course, by the time production of the iconic roadster wrapped up, the R109 looked as if it knew it was time to go. When production of an all-new SL (R129) began in 1989, there was still a bit of money sloshing about from a 1987 hangover to be spent on the all-new version. And of course, it would have to be the big-dog SL500. Low and sleek, the new SL screamed money and success, which had just the desired effect.
In 1993 Mercedes released an even more grandiose version — the SL600, powered by a 6.0-litre 48-valve DOHC V12 producing 290kw (390hp). This compared to the SL500’S 5.0-litre V8 producing 234kw (315hp), so a decent bump in power, but also an extra 130kg in weight, meaning some of that power was negated.
The biggest difference between the SL500 and the SL600 was its V12 and adaptive damping suspension as standard (available only as an expensive and often unreliable option on the SL500). The smooth, low-revving V12 offered drivers a different experience in their SLS. Less sport, more cruise was the idea. Surprisingly, the V8 and V12 variations of the SL were only available with a four-speed automatic gearbox (the six-cylinder cars could be optioned with a five-speed).
One step ahead
All of this might make an SL500 driver think twice about the upgrade. Why bother? Of course, the SL600 was not produced for any great performance or comfort benefits over the SL500, but simply to offer a car at a higher price point to appease those who wanted to keep one step ahead of the neighbours. At a time when BMW was building some of the best M cars it’s ever made (as well as the 850i), and with Lexus entering the marketplace with Toyota-backed budgets and aggression, Mercedes-benz needed to make a statement in luxury, refinement, and price point. The SL600 achieved that.
And what was that price point? Well, in the US market the premium for the SL600, over the 500, was a quite unbelievable 30 per cent markup of $32,000. Here in New Zealand, prospective buyers were expected to part with the best part of $100k for the privilege of driving the prestigious V12.
And the premiums didn’t stop there. The big V12 was synonymous with high servicing costs, without a record of which values in the second-hand market plummeted. This was less to do with the reliability of the V12 than the sheer size of the engine. Opening the bonnet of our feature car revealed pure darkness — there was not a crack of light to be seen. The V12 is enormous, and this of course meant working on the car was and is difficult for mechanics. As an example, the valve cover gasket replacement on the SL500 took an estimated 1.7 hours. On the SL600, 7.6 hours.
Everything in the SL600 was electric, and as anyone who has owned a European car built in the 1990s will attest, electric everything was in an ‘experimental’ phase during this period, with seemingly every second person on the electronic assembly line being blindfolded. On a good version, things will work well. On a not so good version, they will not. You’ll be able to tell.
But despite all of this, the SL600 was, and is, a damned good car. Quick without shouting about it; stable and steady, it was the ultimate open-road cruiser that looked as fantastic on the autobahn as it does parked outside Antoines.
We met the owner of our featured SL600, Eric Mahoney, at EC Mercedez in Auckland. The SL has spent a good amount of time with Emil and his team, this time to assess an electronics issue. Eric has owned the car for a number of years, having bought it from his brother, who was the second owner. Eric adores the SL, and it takes pride of place amongst a few other interesting vehicles. His passion for the ocean means the SL sometimes plays second fiddle, but it’s always nice to know there’s a piece of German muscle sitting in the garage when conditions on the Gulf are particularly uninviting. Thanks to Eric for getting the SL out for a drive on a beautiful day.
The Mercedes SL, in new or classic form, continues to be a member of many of our ultimate garages. The modern Gullwing SLS and more recently the AMG-GT probably overtook the SL for a while, but that classic roaster shape continues to prove its mettle, with the current king of the hill being the Amg-built SL65. Still powered by an enormous V12 engine, the modern version puts out 463kw (621hp).